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White WomenProtectors of
the Status Quo; Positioned to Disrupt It
Sarah J. Brazaitis

The scene is set in the nal moments of an experiential Group Rela-

tions conference organized around the theme of examining the relationship
between diversity and authority in group and organizational life. The staff
and members (about 75 people) are gathered in the conference discussiona
plenary meeting where all the participants have the opportunity to participate
in an open discussion about what was learned about diversity and authority
(and what was not) over the course of the three-day conference. One member
shares histegret that the work in the conference was not deeper, was not more
collaborative, particularly, he says, he regrets there was not more interaction
and engagement among people from diverse backgrounds.
A young, White woman begins to share her reections on the conference.
She speaks in a high-pitched, but clear, voice; her words are articulate, and
her tone is earnest and insistent. She says she wanted to do deeper work in the
conference, she wanted to reach out to others who did not look like her, but
because it was not safe, she was not welcomed. She takes a breath before
continuing when she is interrupted. A 40-something African-American woman
begins to speak. Her voice has a deep, resonant tone and urgent cadence as
she counters the White womans point. She says White women always want
it to be safe before they act, White women always want the conditions to be
just right before they will take a risk, but then it is not any risk at all. She says
that waiting to feel safe is a privilege of White women. It is never safe
for women of color to speak up, to share their point of view, to ask for what
they want or deserve; yet they do it anyway because they have no choice. The
Black womans voice grows louder and more commanding. She says White
women need to own up to all they get from being White and being close to
White men. White women, she says, are too busy getting what they can from
White men and from being White themselves, while all the while talking about
how oppressed they are as women. With all that, she says, women of color will
never welcome White women as sisters.
The room is perfectly still, and the air is thick with the impact of her
words. All are riveted as this woman nishes her last sentence, and as she
does, the conference ends. Members and staff move into an informal post-con-
ference social gathering, milling about and chatting loudly with one another.
In a corner of the room, the White woman is in tears. Other young, White
women are patting her back, murmuring to her, consoling her.


Theory: Brazaitis

This chapter is about what White women do to hold on to White privi-
lege and the costs and benets associated with holding on. It is also about
what White women might be able to do and who we might be able to be
if we disavow such privilege, an act that has both benets and costs. This
chapter will explore the particular role of White women in group life and
White womens contribution to the exploration of diversity in the U.S. from a
Group Relations perspective. White womens standing is unique in societys
power structure. Indeed, every social identity group has a particular posi-
tion in race relations, and each group is related to and inuences each other
in particular ways based on this position. This chapter suggests that White
womens relatedness to White men and to people of color shapes their inter-
actions at every level of group analysis including interpersonal, group-as-a-
whole, intergroup, inter-organizational, and society-as-a-whole. The focus
of diversity work has mostly been on people of color and to some extent the
relationship between people of color and Whites. Using a Group Relations
analysis to explore White women as a group is a means of understanding
the relatedness of White women to other social identity groups. Further, this
chapter posits that White women are critical in maintaining the status quo of
race relations. That is, White women are uniquely placed to protect or disrupt
White male privilege and power.
This work is a discussion of White women. As a White woman myself,
this chapter is written in a White womans voice. At times, that voice is con-
dent, passionate, and authentic, such as when Im writing from my own expe-
rience and my experience can be easily grounded in the literature. At other
times, my voice is hesitant and muted. After reading a draft of this chapter, a
colleague told me, You start out strong and powerful, and then you get really
heady and distance the reader. Its confusing. My writing is heady and
intellectual when I feel the need to distance myself from the material, to make
this work more scholarly, to attribute controversial ideas solely to others, and
to describe White women out there as though I am not one of them, par-
ticularly when a topic is too provocative to come close to it emotionally. At
times, I felt these ideas were powerful and essential, if frightening. At other
times, I wanted to dismiss them as oversimplications, overgeneralizations,
and anecdotal. My experience writing this chapter was linked to the experi-
ence of reading it. Further, the process of writing this chapter, and of reading
it, must also reect its content. A friend and colleague who helped edit this
chapter said to me of this work, Its risky to say, and its risky to read. In
reading and writing this chapter, there is a lot to be lost. I have to agree.
This chapter uses a Group Relations framework to examine how White
women are positioned to protect or disrupt the status quo of White male privi-
lege and power. Critical to this analysis is the notion of intergroup embed-
dedness. Group Relations theory suggests that within a given system, the
relationship between two groups depends not only on how they deal with
each other, but also on the relationship each group has with the superordinate
group in the larger system. Applied to race relations, embeddedness refers


White WomenProtectors of the Status Quo

to the extent to which power differences between racial groups at the soci-
etal level are mirrored in the relations between these groups at the organiza-
tional and intergroup level. Thus, White women occupy a particular position
in relation to White men, the most powerful group in society, as well as to
women of color and men of color. Using a Group Relations perspective to
understand White womens particular roles in group and systems has impli-
cations for theory and practice. This chapter will end with the implications of
exploring White womens unique position in race relations.
The Tavistock tradition of the study of group dynamics and Group
Relations focuses on a group-as-a-whole level of analysis. Group-as-a-whole
theory suggests that group members are inextricably interwoven via an uncon-
scious, tacit agreement of shared fantasies and collusive projections which
form the groups lan vital or Gestalt (Wells, 1990, p. 55). Group-as-
a-whole theory is a useful framework for examining the role of social iden-
tity variables in group life and in society in that each social identity group
contributes to the Gestalt. This includes the notion that White women have a
particular predisposition or valence for specic qualities and characteristics
in groups and systems that they then enact on behalf of the entire group. This
chapter will focus on three aspects of White womens unique contribution to
the lan of groups as a result of race and gender.
First, research and data from the psychological literature about White
womens gender roles, gender role socialization, and relationships with White
men will be presented to frame this analysis. Critical areas where White wom-
ens gender roles, gender role socialization, and male-female relationships in
the U.S. differ from those of U.S. Black women or other women of color,
both historically and currently, will be highlighted. Second, specic projec-
tions White women receive in groups and systems will be explored as well
as what White women project onto others. White womens particular valence
or pre-disposition to collude with the projections of others will also be dis-
cussed. Third, the chapter will include hypotheses regarding White womens
contribution to maintaining the status quo of current race relations. This will
include a discussion of the costs and benets of White women recognizing,
acknowledging, and transforming the interplay of their race and gender in
groups, systems, and the society at large.


White womens typical (stereotypical) roles in groups, organizations,
and systems today have roots in historical images, norms, and practices of
American society regarding White and Black females. Black and White
women have historically been held to different standards about femininity
(Davis, 1981; hooks, 1981; King, 1975; Ladner, 1971; Welter, 1983). Dur-
ing the time of slavery, Black women were expected to work in the elds and
were subject to harsh conditions and brutal beatings just as their male coun-
terparts were. White women, on the other hand, were considered pure, docile,
fragile, and in need of protection (Palmer, 1983; Perkins, 1983; Welter, 1983).
White womens role was referred to as the angel in the house based on a


Theory: Brazaitis

book of poems by the same name which was extremely popular during the
19th century (Giddings, 1984). The cult of true womanhood emerged as a
set of standards for White women who desired access to societys most pow-
erful circles (Welter, 1983, p. 372). True womanhood emphasized innocence,
piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity for White women. Education
in true womanhood taught womens natural position of subordination and
highlighted women as loving wives and mothers (Perkins, 1983, p. 18). Yet
during that time period, Black womens true womanhood followed a dif-
ferent path. White society scarcely acknowledged Black women as female.
Indeed, the ideals of White womanhoodsubmissiveness, docility, fragil-
itywere the antithesis of Black womens lives during slavery and for many
years following (Perkins, 1983). Black women, by contrast, were seen as
laborers, and therefore a denition of Black womanhood was constructed that
included a tradition of hard work, perseverance, self-reliance, tenacity, and
resistance (Davis, 1981).
Differences between the roles and expectations of Black and White
women can be seen to this day throughout the modern feminist movement.
During the 1960s and 70s, while White women were ghting for meaning-
ful job opportunities outside the home and an escape from the oppressive
tyranny of being housewives stuck in a suburban wasteland, Black women
were struggling against racism and sexism in the workforce (Giddings, 1984,
p. 299). The problems of White, middle-class housewives were alien to many
Black women who had a long history in the labor force and had different
needs from the White womens movement. Comas-Diaz and Greene (1994)
maintained that Black women have not been held to the traditional gender
roles of their White counterparts. Black women are said to value assertive-
ness, independence, self-condence, and sexual assuredness (Lewis, 1975;
Reid, 1988; Reid, Haritos, Kelly, & Holland, 1995). Black females concep-
tions of womanhood include self-reliance, strength, resourcefulness, autono-
my, and the responsibility of providing for the nancial as well as emotional
needs of the family (Dugger, 1988; Ladner, 1971; Malson, 1983).
Over reliance on male approval, ambivalence and anxiety over contradic-
tory roles and passivity and non-assertiveness are not characteristics that
apply to many women of color. By contrast, Black working class women
use aggressive action rather than passivity as a survival mechanism. As
a result they are often viewed antagonistically by Whites as unfeminine
(Zinn, Cannon, Higgenbotham, Dill and Thornton, 1986, p. 298).
Children are socialized to gender roles in their families, at school, in
their communities, and via the larger culture and society in which they live
(Bem, 1983). Several scholars suggest that Black mothers are more likely to
teach their daughters not to subscribe to traditional ideas about femininity
(Comas-Diaz & Greene, 1994; Debold, Wilson, & Malave, 1993; Goodman,
1990; Greene, 1990). Black mothers help to socialize their daughters as both
gendered and raced beings (Greene, 1990) and therefore direct their daugh-
ters to be strong, resilient, and independent in order to face the challenges
of a racist society (Turner, 1987; Ward, 1990). Furthermore, Black moth-
ers instruct their daughters not to rely on men to support them nancially


White WomenProtectors of the Status Quo

(Debold, Wilson, & Malave, 1993; Joseph & Lewis, 1981). Black men face
racism and discrimination in the labor market that severely hinders their abil-
ity to be the sole breadwinner in their families. In addition, the relatively high
percentage of Black female-headed households necessitates Black womens
ability to be nancially independent (Palmer, 1983).
White girls are not taught to be resilient against racism, however, as
they do not experience racial oppression. White girls are taught to be nur-
turing and empathic, but not necessarily with the same focus on being inde-
pendent and strong. Palmer (1983) suggested that many White mothers can
expect their daughters to be supported by their future husbands and thus need
not command their daughters to be self-reliant. Instead, many White girls are
taught to be quiet, submissive, good, or even perfectqualities that a man
would nd attractive (Brown & Gilligan, 1992). White girls are then taught
to give up their power, self-reliance, and independence in exchange for pro-
tection and nancial security (Debold, Wilson, & Malave, 1993). Hurtado
(1989) put it this way:
White, middle-class women are groomed from birth to be the lovers, moth-
ers, and partners (however unequal) of White men because of the eco-
nomic and social benets attached to these roles. Upper and middle-class
White women are supposed to be the biological bearers of those mem-
bers of the next generation who will inherit positions of power in society.
Women of color, in contrast, are groomed from birth to be primarily the
lovers, mothers, and partners (however unequal) of men of color, who
are also oppressed by White men. The avenues of advancement through
marriage that are open to White women who conform to prescribed stan-
dards of middle-class femininity are not even a theoretical possibility for
most women of color. This is not to say that women of color are more
oppressed than White women, but rather, that White men use different
forms of enforcing oppression of White women and women of color. As
a consequence, these groups of women have different political responses
and skills (p. 843).
While White women may also value courage and self-reliance, they
potentially face different consequences for asserting themselves than do
women of color. Assertive White women risk being judged unfeminine, and
as a result, being rejected by White men. Women of color, who have a dif-
ferent relationship to White men, need different coping strategies and hence
have developed distinct behaviors and responses.
Intergroup embeddedness in Group Relations theory suggests that
there is an inter-relatedness among White men, White women, men of color,
and women of color. In addition, the relationships among White women,
women of color, and men of color are affected by each groups relation to
the dominant group, White men. White women are in the unique position
of being able to produce racially pure offspring for White men, offspring
who will be the next generation of power in society. Hurtado (1989) sug-
gested that White women are seduced into being the partners of White men
under the pretense of sharing power. Yet, it is a pretense because the partner-
ship and the power are unequal. The patriarchal invitation to power is only


Theory: Brazaitis

a pretended choice for White women becausetheir inclusion is dependent

on complete and constant submission (Hurtado, 1989, p. 845). Were White
women to disrupt the system, change their position, renounce unearned
White privilege, and refuse the role White men have prescribed for them of
being a complicit partner in maintaining the status quo, the entire structure
of race relations might be altered. White womens silence on the reality of
this position preserves their own racial power while it ensures their gender
oppression. What keeps White women from exposing White male patriar-
chy to free themselves to be more authentic and truly powerful? A complex
interaction between White womens roles in groups, what White women
contain on behalf of others, and White womens collusion collectively help
to keep the status quo in place.


It is hypothesized that White womens roles in groups, organizations,
and systems have their roots in socialization processes along gender and racial
lines. I have worked to understand my own racial identity and researched,
read, taught, and written about issues related to diversity and Group Relations
over many years; I have also participated as both staff and member in numer-
ous Group Relations conferences, some designed specically to understand
the relationship between Group Relations and diversity. Following are some
examples of my impressions of who White women are in groups.
White women take up the role of the good girl in groups and sys-
tems. They are the ones who take copious notes, raise their hands to ask
questions, sit in the front row, and nod their heads at the leader. I teach
a university graduate-level course on group dynamics in New York City.
The front row of my classroom is usually lled with White women who are
good, obedient students. Of course, the White female students behavior
is probably also inuenced by the fact that I, as their professor, am also a
White female. The White womens proclivity to support and ally with me
due to identifying with me is likely strong. It is my experience, however,
that these White womens obedient behavior is also related to the pressures
and expectations imposed on them, however unconsciously, by traditional
gender roles that dictate how White females are supposed to act. Again,
these behaviors are reminiscent of traditional denitions of feminine good-
ness from the 19th century, as well as of Gilligan and Browns more mod-
ern perfect girl (1992).
I have also interestingly experienced the opposite behavior from the
White women (usually young) in my class. These White women are the stu-
dents who whisper and pass notes to each other during my lectures; they are
the students who arrive late and leave early. One hypothesis is that they have
internalized the projections that White women are passive, docile, submis-
sive; the opposite of powerful and authoritative. They perhaps cannot see
themselves as having the authority, power, and competence to be a university
professor. Thus, they perhaps cannot authorize me, a young, White woman,
in that role either.


White WomenProtectors of the Status Quo

White women take on the role of being fragile or emotionally sensi-

tive in groups. They are the ones who cry. White womens historical legacy
is that of delicateness and fragility. I have yet to be a participant in a Group
Relations conference as staff or member when a White woman did not burst
into tears, silently weep, or leave the room wiping her eyes in the middle of a
group session. Of course, others cry in Group Relations conferences as well,
including people of color and White men. White women, however, seem to
have a particular valence or predisposition for it. It is certainly more socially
acceptable for White women to cry than it is for men of any race to do so.
After all, White women are the angels in the house needing protection and
care, and their gender role seems to demand tears.
White women often interact predictably with White men in groups and
systems taking on the role of being White mens protectors and supporters.
White women benet from unearned privilege and authority through their
Whiteness, but also by their access to White male privilege in their relation-
ships with White men. Bell and Nkomo (2001) conducted a study for which
they interviewed 825 Black and White women managers across the U.S. about
race and gender dynamics at work among other things. They noted, [White]
women are quick to come to the defense of their White male supporters, often
acting as their talking heads, echoing and supporting their views and values
to fellow workers (p. 241). One of the participants in the study described
White womens access to White men in this way, White women are very
familiar to White men. This is someone they know. This could be their sister,
their daughter, their mother or the girl next door. They are comfortable with
these women (p. 241). Indeed, White women are typically the mothers, sis-
ters, daughters, wives, and lovers of White men. It seems likely that pairing
with a very powerful group in society (e.g., White men) would be a different
experience than pairing with those in society who are often denied power and
authority (e.g., men of color) because of racism and discrimination. White
women may then be particularly susceptible to traditional notions of femi-
ninity and strategies to maintain intimacy with White men because they rely
on the conferred dominance (McIntosh, 1989) afforded White men. Black
women and other women of color, by contrast, do not or cannot rely on White
male privilege (Hurtado, 1989). Bell and Nkomo (2001) asserted:
Because of White womens perceived access to White men, many Black
women believe a White womanhas the upper hand in advancing her
own career. She learns from the master playersWhite men. But she gets
caught in a bind when it comes to speaking out against company practices.
Speaking out jeopardizes her fragile status (p. 241).
A Black female colleague, a university professor, related the follow-
ing incident that seemed to reect this dynamic. Students in her class were
required to give an in-class presentation on a chosen topic related to diver-
sity and higher education, and each would receive feedback publicly in class
from the professor and other students. One of the White male students gave
a particularly poor presentation. His research was shoddy and incomplete,
and his arguments were unorganized and vague. The professor offered criti-
cal feedback detailing where his presentation needed improvement. One by


Theory: Brazaitis

one, White women in the class raised their hands and defended him, stating
his research was cogent and his arguments sound. The students of color in
the class and the other White males remained silent. Of course, there are
many possible hypotheses to explain this interaction. Perhaps the students of
color did not want to publicly disagree with a Black professor, perhaps the
White women who spoke in defense of the White, male student happened to
think he did a good job, or were friends with him. Yet, it is also possible, that
the White women were acting to defend their man, albeit unconsciously,
because their privilege depended in some degree on preserving his. In addi-
tion, it may have been important for these White women to defend a White
man against the disapproval, criticism, or aggression of a Black woman. In
this example, preserving White privilege necessitated supporting a White
man, but also rejecting Black female authority.
In Group Relations conferences as a member and staff person, I have
seen White women authorize White men as leaders and defend and protect
White men despite their seeming irresponsibility, incompetence, or even,
abusiveness. I have seen White women pair with White men insistently,
repeatedly, often at the expense or exclusion of other women, both White
and of color. I was on staff of a Group Relations conference entitled, White-
ness and Authority, where the staff was all White by design, in part, so as
to examine White authority explicitly rather than to keep it hidden as the
implicit standard. I was deployed as the Large Study Group Team Leader
in this conference and worked with a team of four, another woman, and two
men. The other woman on the team, the Conference Director, was some-
what racially ambiguous. Although she identied as White, her skin color
was the same hue as some who identify as people of color. The two male
Large Study Group Team members included an olive-skinned, Jewish male
in his thirties, with dark brown hair and eyes, and a 50-something Protes-
tant male with light hair and eyes, and fair skin. At one point in our teams
work, it became apparent that I was attempting to pair with the older White
male and to exclude the Director and the younger male. One hypothesis
was that I was trying to push out the color in our team and create an
Aryan pair of the older, Whiter male and me. By aligning with, support-
ing, and protecting the older, Whiter male, I might increase my own access
to unearned White male privilege and power and diminish the power of
those of color.
A major theme emerged at this conference concerning whether or not
there were enough seats at the table, that is, whether or not power and
authority could be shared among a diverse group or could only be held by a
homogenous White few. If there was unconscious or conscious concern that
there might be limited access to power and authority, it follows that I, as the
White female team leader, might represent and enact the wish and attempt
to protect ones own privilege at all costs, in this case, by pairing with the
Whitest male. This dynamic echoes the typical roles and behaviors White
women have adopted throughout history as a means of securing their own
resources through relationships with White men, even if it means exclud-
ing, abandoning, or extruding people of color. In addition, its possible that


White WomenProtectors of the Status Quo

the Large Study Group team and the members of the Large Group may also
(consciously or unconsciously) have wanted the Whitest team members
to pair as this would be a simpler, more familiar representation of those in
power. Thus, the entire system may have colluded in preserving this pair and
by extension, the status quo.
White women may take on the role of being oppressed in groups and
systems. White women are in a position of being vulnerable to oppression
based on their gender and capable of oppression based on their race. White
women certainly experience prejudice and discrimination both personally
and institutionally because they are female. Gender bias is real and has
serious, deleterious consequences. Yet, in Group Relations conferences or
work groups where White women and women of color are present, I have
repeatedly seen White womens confusion, disappointment, and anger when
women of color do not join with them (us) as sisters in the ght against
sexism. For White women, discrimination is gender-based, while women of
color face the double jeopardy of being female and a member of a visible
racial/ethnic group. For women of color, eschewing sexism may necessitate
betraying men of color, who are loved and needed allies in the battle against
racism. Women of color frequently (painfully) need to choose their battles,
and racism, by comparison to sexism, is often the more deadly threat. There-
fore, White women have a different experience of sexism than do women
of color, yet White women frequently seem to expect that sisterhood should
trump all when faced with the male oppressor regardless of whether that
oppressor is White or of color. White women often seem unaware that
although denouncing sexism risks their connection to White men (and pre-
sumably men of color), it does not alter unearned privilege based on their
Whiteness. Women of color, on the other hand, do not have skin color privi-
lege and as such face different consequences in speaking out against sex-
ism. They risk losing their connection with men of color with whom they
are allied in the ght against racism without the cushion of unearned White
privilege afforded White women.
White women have historically focused on their gender oppression
largely to the exclusion of their race privilege. The eld of psychology in
general, and feminist psychology in particular, with rare exception, has
ignored White womens Whiteness and only examined the impact of race
when women of color are included in a sample. Thus, the psychology of
women in large part has neglected the differentiation among women and
instead, has presented theories and studies that suggest there is a univer-
sal woman (Reid & Kelly, 1994, p. 477; Spelman, 1988; Yoder & Kahn,
1993). This concept of the universal woman implies that gender is a primary
experience for all women and that differences among women such as race,
ethnicity, class, religion, sexual orientation, and so on are secondary to the
female experience. Yet, femaleness varies across a wide variety of social
identities. When White women refuse to acknowledge this variation, along
with accompanying status and power differences as noted in the opening
example of this chapter, it is increasingly difcult for them to work authenti-
cally across racial boundaries with women of color.


Theory: Brazaitis

Women of colors mistrust of White womens attempts to join

together in ghting sexism has disturbing, historical roots. During the suf-
frage movement of the early 20th century, White suffragettes originally
sought the right to vote for all women, regardless of race. As a movement
to grant Black men voting rights gathered momentum, however, White
feminists spoke out angrily about their superiority to Black males, and
their inherent right as Whites to participate in the U.S. political process
(Giddings, 1984). White feminists quickly abandoned their Black sisters
when their White privilege was threatened. These historical underpin-
nings of the relationship among women of all races have meaning today
in groups and systems. White women, who ignore their race privilege and
focus solely on their gender oppression, deny a fundamental piece of who
they are and the status, power, and authority (however unearned) they
have. Is it any wonder that women of color have difculty welcoming
White women as sisters?
One way White women attempt to obfuscate the issue of their race
privilege is by focusing on a social identity other than race: ethnicity,
class, religion, or sexual orientation. I have been in many Group Rela-
tions conferences where White women, who are pressed (usually by peo-
ple of color) to acknowledge their White skin privilege, have said, Well
Im not really White, Im Jewish. Or, I may be White, but Im a les-
bian, so Im doubly oppressed just like women of color. After giving
an invited seminar on White privilege and psychotherapy at a college
counseling center, a White female therapist approached me afterward and
said, I dont think White privilege applies to me because my parents are
working class.
Rather than exploring their Whiteness and femaleness and the inter-
section of a third social identity, it seems White women would rather just
forget their own race all together and explore rather, for example, being
a Jewish woman, lesbian woman, or working class woman. In addition, I
have observed that White women in groups seem to disregard Whiteness to
emphasize another oppressed group to which they belong. I have yet to be
in a group conference where a White women says, Yes, Im White, but Im
also upper class and thats more important to me. It seems White women
are quick to highlight their experience of oppression based on gender, or
other minority identities, especially when interacting with people of color.
This appears to be an attempt to disavow their capacity to be oppressive,
and perhaps, to identify with people of colors experience, as a means of
collaborating across racial boundaries. It may additionally be an attempt to
increase their sense of being oppressed so as to gain power with the idea
that among disenfranchised groups, the more oppressed you are the more
power you have. What seems more difcult to do, however, is for White
women to attempt to explore their capacity to be oppressive both via their
own skin color and through their access to White male privilege. White
women who work to understand their own racial identity would be engag-
ing in a more authentic self-exploration and hence may be more capable of
meaningful cross-racial interactions.


White WomenProtectors of the Status Quo


How are roles based on gender and race assigned and enacted in groups
and why? Wells (1990) noted that groups use defense mechanisms such as
projective identication and splitting to combat anxiety with resulting role
differentiation. Projective identication is a psychological process where-
by one unconsciously splits off disavowed, disowned, or ambivalent char-
acteristics (e.g., rage, incompetence, or weakness) and deposits them into
another individual or sub-group; the other(s) is then encouraged to express
those traits on behalf of the individual who disavowed them. Splitting refers
to the unconscious process of dividing the world into disparate parts such
that one aspect is contained in an individual or sub-group and its opposite
in another. These processes contribute to the formation and maintenance of
roles in groups and systems. Roles are interdependent and interwoven such
that together they contribute to the group-as-a-wholes Gestalt (Wells, 1990).
Groups circumscribe conicts into sub-groups of members who enact these
conicts on behalf of the entire group. Members who are not actively partici-
pating in a given conict nonetheless experience it vicariously. Non-partici-
pants are, therefore, just as involved in the expression of conict as those who
are actively enacting it.
Group Relations theory suggests the particular roles White women take
up in groups are, in part, based on projective processes of the group-as-a-
whole. White women have a particular valence, or pre-disposition, for these
roles and hence collude in internalizing the projections of others and express-
ing them. Yet, groups also work to keep White women in these roles (and
other sub-groups in other roles) because doing so serves the group in some
way. What is projected onto White women and why? What do White women
project onto others? How do these projections serve the group-as-a-whole?
The above paragraphs have outlined the process of projection to which
White women are subject in groups. White women receive projections of
being docile, fragile, submissive, and in need of protection. They are expected
(sometimes unconsciously) to be seless, nurturing, passive, and quiet. Lest
the reader scoff at these traditional stereotypes of White women as outdated or
irrelevant in the 21st century, more recent works have suggested women must
continue to display traditional qualities to be accepted in the workplace.
Ann Richards, former governor of Texas, was recently quoted as saying:
We try to feed into this pattern of acceptability that seems to be so impor-
tant, particularly in running for public ofce or trying to become the CEO
of a corporation. You have still got to make the pretense that you are also
being a wife and mother, that youre keeping the house clean, and giving
partieswhen women have no more time to do all that than men do who
ll those jobs. But we still play the game because we think or we hope that
we will get some acceptance (Clift & Brazaitis, 2000, p. 323).
How do White women taking on these roles serve the group-as-a-whole?
First, it allows others (men, women of color) to disavow distasteful parts of
themselves by depositing those qualities on the otherWhite women. Mill-
er (1976) argued that because women are in a lower status position in society


Theory: Brazaitis

in relation to men, they develop personality characteristics that reect this

subordination and help them cope with it. She wrote that females develop
an inability to act, to decide, to think, and the likeweakness, and help-
lessness because of their gender subordination (p. 7). She further added that
subordinates who express these characteristics are deemed well-adjusted.
Hence, White women who take on these projections are judged normal and
are accepted. White women who attempt to reject such rigid role prescrip-
tions are then subject to being deemed deviant, unacceptable, or incompe-
tent. Women of color and men may collude in maintaining White women
in these roles, however, as doing so potentially frees them from having to
experience these vulnerable and demeaning qualities. They can watch as a
White woman leaves a room in tears and think, Whats her problem? or
Not me. All social identity groups have a stake in locking White women
into these narrow, rigid, subordinate roles and proclaiming them normal. A
White woman who attempts to resist such roles is then seen as pathological
and can be made to feel crazy.
It could be argued that White womens experience of vulnerability and
weakness is directly related to mens or White mens experience of being
formidable and strong. White womens role in groups of needing protec-
tion could then also be seen as directly connected to Black womens roles
of being self-reliant, independent, and tough. Women of color and men may
have some investment in maintaining White women in stereotypical roles, as
doing so releases them from having to own or experience those disagreeable
parts in themselves.


Yet, projective processes in groups are more complex than is appar-
ent in the above analysis and often far less benign. While groups project
these various qualities onto White women, White women collude with these
projections. That is, White women also have an investment in maintaining
these stereotypical roles. When White women are passive and docile, Black
women are left with rage and aggression. White women who ignore their
capacity to be oppressive may not want to own their hostility and ability to
hurt or harm. It may be far more palatable for White women to maintain the
image of being sweet, passive, and submissive, or oppressed, than capable of
intense rage, racism, and violence. Connolly and Noumair (1997) wrote, For
a White woman to ask a Black woman to carry her anger is to collude with the
maintenance of parochial racial and gender stereotypes whereby we construct
angry Black women and powerless White women (p. 329).
White women may also be invested in colluding with these projections
as they facilitate their access to White male privilege. For White women to
speak out against their traditional gender roles is to break from their alli-
ance with White men. In particular, White women who acknowledge and
eschew their unearned White skin privilege may then force White men to
acknowledge theirs. White women who demand an inquiry into Whiteness
necessitate an examination of a major piece of White male powerconferred


White WomenProtectors of the Status Quo

dominance based on skin colorand as such, may no longer be the wel-

come partners of White men in sharing (however unequally) that dominance.
White women, then, risk losing their access to White male privilege if they
fend off projections based on gender and race. White men then have much to
gain by keeping White women in these roles for the same reasons. If White
women abandon White men by speaking out about Whiteness, White mens
power is at risk of being deconstructed. Connolly and Noumair (1997) stated,
White women have been used as a prophylactic against interrupting patriar-
chy (p. 331). Deconstructing White male power includes revealing the myth
of meritocracy. Rejecting unearned White privilege means debunking the
idea that those who are in power have unequivocally earned their position,
rather than they have unduly beneted from a racist, sexist society and that
their conferred dominance is based on being White and male. The notion of
meritocracy benets White women as Whites and as partners of White men.
Exposing the myth of meritocracy means White women and men must ques-
tion whether or not their power and authority have been earned.

What would disrupting the status quo look like? White women who
acknowledge and take responsibility for their Whiteness, renounce unearned
White privilege, and speak up and speak out even when it is not safe
that is, even when they risk their own privilege and their access to White
mencontribute to changing the status quo of race relations in this coun-
try. White women stand to gain from ghting against gender subjugation
while also rejecting unearned White privilege. They can be freed to nurture
and strengthen their sense of self-agency and authorization, not by seeking
connection with unearned White male dominance and staying powerless
and quiet, but rather by nding their authenticity and being true to who they
are in all their various social identities. White women could then potential-
ly access their competent, active, strong, angry, and vital dimensions rather
than remain stuck in a rigid role that narrowly and inaccurately denes them.
White women who fulll these narrow, rigid roles so as to preserve relation-
ships with White men nd their creativity is stied, their passion deadened.
White women who accessed these parts of themselves might then free men to
take up more vulnerability and healthy dependence.
A White female executive known to the author challenged her boss
publicly on an issue related to his stance on diversity in the organization that
she thought was racist. She said she had suffered his views silently in the
past, fearful of losing her connection to him, and as such, the power in that
connection. Yet, she knew if she did not challenge him, she could no longer
respect him or herself, nor could she support the organizations mission. She
saw her options as submit, challenge, or leave. He accepted her feedback
and worked with her and others to change his position on the organizations
diversity policy. As a result, the White female executive felt re-committed
to working fully and authentically for her boss and the organization. In a
related way, White women who reject these rigid role prescriptions and shift


Theory: Brazaitis

their relational position to White men, might be able both to lead and fol-
low more authentically in groups and organizations. They would be able to
authorize others to bring their full selves to work rather than to behave in
stereotypical, narrow ways. Less investment in maintaining the status quo of
preserving White male power could free up more possibilities for all.
For example, White women or White men and women could focus on
Whiteness, or race, and other diversity issues such that people of color could
be freed from the tyranny of the diversity expert role. That is, people of
color might have more energy and desire to focus on other issues, passions,
interests, etc. than those of diversity and multiculturalism. As it stands now,
people of color carry these issues because White people do not, cannot, or will
not. This doesnt mean that White people would get to be diversity experts
and have White privilege, but rather that diversity work would be seen as
everyones responsibility rather than people of colors problem or their
sole area of expertise. In addition, White women might be more trustwor-
thy collaborators in cross-racial interaction. White women who can acknowl-
edge and speak to their oppressiveness and oppression and who can reject
their unearned White privilege while they denounce their gender subjugation
might be able to partner more authentically across racial boundaries. Black
women might not be trapped in the role of the angry one, nor would they
be asked to be continually the groups strong and self-reliant members. Black
women, then, might be able to access other parts of themselves without the
pressure of constantly having to be strong and powerful. People of all races
could potentially have more role freedom and in a related way, more creativ-
ity, authenticity, complexity, and personal authority.
White women would have to guard against accepting a more sophisti-
cated version of the White female projections in the context of diversity; that
is, being the good White girls on diversity. There are White women who
authorize people of color at all costs, agree with every accusation of their
own racism, automatically launch into a confession of their White privilege
and its unearned benets at the rst mention of race relations. I have been that
White woman myself. Indeed, the pressure to be good is weighty. Yet, in
this context, good does not mean skillful or competent but rather obliging or
obedient. A good White girl on diversity is reminiscent of the good White
woman of the 19th century, dutiful and well-behaved, saying what she thinks
others want to hear, rather than what she really believes.
Yet, a true examination of White womens role in race relations goes
beyond White women being able to call racism, their own and others. Rather,
it involves White women being able to discern the interplay of White privi-
lege and sexism, classism, homophobia and the like, along with all of these
variables relationship to power and authority. I consulted to a Small Study
Group at a Group Relations conference and subsequently had a series of con-
versations with a Black woman in my group where we processed some of the
dynamics that occurred in the group and mutually shared our thoughts and
feelings about the experience. This woman spoke of being the victim of rac-
ist projections and said she felt the group tried to make her its Mammy to
nurture them. Further, she maintained that I colluded with the group in doing


White WomenProtectors of the Status Quo

so. At rst, I felt dismayed. I liked this woman and had begun to develop a
collegial relationship with her before the conference. I had hoped to contin-
ue our relationship and had anticipated working together in one capacity or
another after the conference ended. Now I felt I was being accused of partici-
pating in racist projective processes. My knee-jerk reaction was to be a good
White girl. I felt the impulse to concur immediately, agreeing that I collud-
ed or even participated actively in a racist process. I thought I should quickly
acknowledge my unearned White privilege, my racism, and my failure to
authorize her as a Black woman. Yet, when I reected further, I realized that
I did not fully agree with the womans characterization of the dynamics and
her role. I suggested that the group tried in many ways to de-authorize her
because she was so competent and skillful. There were many competitive and
ambitious members in her group who, I thought, tried to disempower her so
as to emerge as leaders themselves. Indeed, one of the ways they attempted
to unseat her was to try to make her a Mammy, the message being that she
could only be accepted if she was nurturing and subservient. Yet, I offered
that the group eventually discovered it could not force her into a narrow, rac-
ist role which cut off her competence; instead, the group then authorized her
as a powerful leader. This process was not unrelated to race, of course, and
several of the ways the group tried to challenge this womans leadership were
racist and disturbing. Yet, the fundamental issue seemed to be how the group
took in this womans power and authority in conjunction with her social iden-
tity rather than solely the groups and my racism. A White woman suggesting
to a Black woman that she was not solely victimized, but was also authorized,
felt risky. Yet, being able to feel along the edge of this dynamic and offer it
to a woman of color, knowing it might be rejected, felt more authentic than
offering up an analysis of the groups and my racism. White women need to
be able to identify and interrupt their own racism and that of others, but they
also need to be able to forego being held hostage to diversity issues for fear
of being bad, wrong, criticized, or abandoned. By not succumbing to being a
good White girl on diversity, I had access to more of my own competence;
that is, I could consider the dynamic from a more complex perspective. This
allowed for a richer understanding and a collaboration across race.
A critical examination of White womens role in groups, organiza-
tions, and society, including in race relations has implications for diversity
and Group Relations theories. The psychology of women has been criticized
for perpetuating the myth of the universal woman, that is, as noted above,
the notion that gender is a primary experience for all women that supersedes
other differences that could affect their lives (Reid & Kelly, 1994). In addi-
tion, the universal woman is said to be based on a White, middle-class, het-
erosexual woman (Reid & Kelly, 1994) and so reects only a segment of
the female experience while proclaiming to represent all women. Examining
White womens unique position, including the role of White womens race
privilege in their lives, would challenge the notion of the universal woman.
White women would not, then, be presented as the quintessential group of
females as has been promulgated in the past, but rather, White women would
be named as one group among many with signicant within-group variation.


Theory: Brazaitis

Indeed, White women would be seen as contributing one piece to diversity.

Scrutinizing White womens position might then act as a catalyst for a shift
in the entire system.
Yet, the pressure to preserve the existing power structure is exceed-
ingly strong. We return to the seductive, familiar, and abusive status quo that
holds us collectively in its tight grip. We are convinced again and again, often
unconsciously, that the devil we know, the way things are now, is preferable,
or at least recognizable. Interrupting the status quo often feels nearly impos-
sible, and costs much, particularly for those in power.
White women who reject gender subjugation and denounce White
privilege risk losing access to White male power, in addition to White male
attention and affection. In my own attempts to name White privilege in the
presence of White men, I have experienced what I would call the hateful
gaze of the White man. I can still picture the look on the face of a senior
White male consultant during the Whiteness and Authority Group Relations
conference when I continually brought up White privilege. He turned to me
and stared with what seemed to be hatred and contempt. My experience of
this look was that I had gone too far and pushed too hard against Whiteness,
and this was my punishment. Losing access to power and authority through
relationships with White men can feel quite devastating, even deadly. Losing
the attention and affection, indeed, the love, of White men also often feels
intolerable. As a White woman who has an adored White brother, a respected
White father, and a beloved White husband, pulling the cover on patriarchy
can literally feel like surrendering ones lifeblood.
In addition, White women who speak out about Whiteness and White
privilege may nd themselves sisterless. Other White women may distance
themselves and withdraw their support and friendship from women who
attempt to expose White privilege. Such exposure threatens their power and
privilege, too. I directed a Group Relations course conference where more
than half the staff were women of color. A White female staff member with
whom I have a close relationship said to me with a mixture of incredulity
and wariness, You really authorize women of color, dont you? Women
of color (and men of color for that matter) may not trust White women who
attempt to acknowledge and take responsibility for their Whiteness. After
centuries of betrayal by White women, women of color may never be com-
pletely accepting of the sisterhood of White women. Collaborating with
White women may complicate women of colors lives, and it may be safer
for women of color to distance themselves from White women for reasons
that go beyond White womens racism. Women of color have the power
to dismiss and reject White women, to exclude them from sisterhood, to
hurt them. Women of color risk racism, betrayal, or rejection by Whites and
abandonment by other people of color in trying to join with White women.
They also risk losing the power they have to reject, dismiss, and hurt White
women. White women and women of color alike risk much in their attempts
to work together.
Yet, White women are in the position of not having to speak out
against racism and conferred dominance. I have many times felt weary of


White WomenProtectors of the Status Quo

working on my own racial identity, fatigued by addressing Whiteness and

White privilege, and profoundly inadequate in my ability or lack thereof
to work across racial boundaries with women and men of color. I have fre-
quently fantasized about ceasing my efforts to explore Whiteness as these
efforts, more often than not, have left me feeling irrelevant, rejected (by
both Whites and people of color), and foolish. When I have spoken of some
of the ideas in this chapter, I have been met with blank stares, angry rebut-
tals, or obvious disinterest. I am acutely aware that my attempts to address
Whiteness and White privilege are often blundering: blunt and strident,
and sometimes, motivated more by wanting to be seen as a good White
woman by people of color, rather than by an authentic desire to explore my
race and its meaning. Indeed, I have at times overauthorized people of color
in Group Relations conferences, automatically agreeing with all that they
say, seeing their contributions as ipso facto more important than those of
Whites, and working to implement their suggestions regardless of merit. In
the Group Relations conference where a White female friend and colleague
pointed out that I really authorize people of color, I now realize I was at
times working hard to be a good White girl on diversity rather than genu-
inely collaborating across race.
I must acknowledge the times in my life when I have thought it better to
hold on to my privilege, however unearned. And as a White woman, I can. I
do not fear being shot in the street by a police ofcer, being denied a job based
on my race, having my home vandalized, or my family attacked because of
what I look like. I have White privilege. Yet, this privilege costs me too. It
sties my creativity and complexity and connes me to narrow, rigid, inau-
thentic, and unearned denitions of myself and my roles. The authority I
have is not based on who I am, but rather on my White skin color. White
women who acknowledge their femaleness and their Whiteness potentially
bring more authenticity and passion to their work, love, and lives in gen-
eral. Hence, they are harder for others to categorize, understand, and some-
times, appreciate. They may be the object of more envy and competition, and
thus more vulnerable to attacks from others. Yet they may be more sure of
their own authentic competence and true value irrespective of skin color, and
hence, more resistant to others assaults.
So, where are the groups and systems that allow White women to be
complicated and multidimensional, rather than one-dimensional gures con-
taining stiing projections on everyones behalf? And, who are the White
women who manage to bring themselves fully to groups and systems? They
are the White female students in my class who take copious notes, sit in the
front row, and engage me in thoughtful, informed, and challenging discus-
sions. They are the White women who can weep when hurt or moved, yet
whose tears do not dissolve them, but rather empower them to connect, act,
or change. They are the White women who can name and reject White privi-
lege and lead, empower, and join White men to do the same. They are the
White women who denounce sexism while differentiating their experience of
gender subjugation from that of women of colors. They are fully themselves:
strong, vulnerable, fearful, courageous, and dazzling White women.


Theory: Brazaitis

This chapter attempted to convey the interlocking nature of social iden-
tity groups by exploring the particular roles imparted to White women in
groups and systems; roles White women collude in taking on, and which
groups are invested in maintaining. Projective processes ensure this rigid role
differentiation and as such ensure that each sub-group is always able to iden-
tify and name the other. That is, by seeking out a serviceable other (Mor-
rison, 1992), each sub-group (e.g., White women, White men, men of color,
women of color) has a handy repository for all they wish to disown. Yet,
proponents of the Group Relations perspective would argue that the other
is us. This suggests that relations among racial groups and racism involves
everyone, both of color and White, and that each group contributes to the
problem in their own particular way. Thus, changing the status quo would
involve each group shifting, altering, and reclaiming disowned parts. There
would undoubtedly be costs, the world would look different. But the poten-
tial outcome is that all social identity groups would have more freedom, cre-
ativity, authenticity, and personal authority and power, not based falsely on
gender, skin color, privilege, or lack thereof, but rather on real skills and
competence. Although, this may seem like an impossible ideal to achieve,
members of all social identity groups might be able to work collaboratively
across richly varied boundaries of difference. What would happen if White
women, who are uniquely positioned to protect or disrupt the status quo,
shifted? It might be that rather than each group ghting one another for scarce
resources of power and authority such collaboration could produce an ample
supply to be shared among all.


Chapter 5: Brazaitis


White WomenProtectors of the Status Quo;

Positioned to Disrupt It
Sarah J. Brazaitis

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I am indebted to the following people whose review of earlier drafts of this work was
invaluable and whose support in producing this chapter was sustaining: Para Ambardar,
George V. Gushue, Jennifer L. Jackson, Karen Schiller Dusenbury, and Ellen Short.